Men's basketball thwarted by Toledo's towering frontcourt

Senior guard Larry Austin Jr. attempts a contested shot on March 2 in McGuirk Arena,

Central Michigan senior guard Shawn Roundtree caught the ball in the right corner. Recognizing that his defender was overly aggressive on the closeout, Roundtree drove baseline and angled hard toward the hoop.

Waiting in the paint for Roundtree were 6-foot-11 senior center Luke Knapke and 6-foot-10 freshman forward AJ Edu, Toledo’s towering rim protectors.

As Roundtree left his feet for a layup, Knapke jumped to contest the shot. To avoid Knapke’s outstretched arm, Roundtree ducked midair and double-clutched to buy himself time. Then he released the ball.

It was as if Roundtree had set the ball on a tee for Edu. 

Edu didn’t miss. 

Elevating quickly, he sent the ball caroming off the backboard with a solid swat for his third block in the game’s opening nine minutes.

In CMU’s 80-68 home loss to Toledo (23-6, 11-5 Mid-American Conference) on March 2, the Chippewas (20-9, 9-7 MAC) were blocked a whopping 11 times, nine of which came at the hands of Edu and Knapke.

It’s not often that a team has 11 of its shots rejected in a single game, but the Chippewas had seen such a thing occur to them before -- just over a month ago, on the road against none other than the Toledo Rockets. CMU lost that game as well, 76-72.

It would appear that Toledo holds the recipe to success against the Chippewas this season, especially on the defensive end. Accumulating 22 blocks over two games does not happen by accident. 

CMU’s offense is predicated upon being able to drive inside the paint and either go strong to the basket or kick out for spot-up 3-pointers. Understanding this, the Rockets aimed to allow penetration into the lane, where they challenged their opponent to finish at the rim over two of the MAC’s tallest players. 

In the March 2 matchup against Toledo, the Chippewas weren’t hesitant to take on the behemoths guarding the hoop.

However, they went about it with the wrong mentality in the opening half.

“In the first half, we were attacking to get fouled, and therefore they blocked the shot,” senior guard Larry Austin said. 

The Rockets blocked seven CMU field goal attempts in the first 20 minutes of play. 

Down a dozen at the half, the Chippewas came out of the break with a different attitude when going into the paint. 

“In the second half, we were going aggressive to the glass,” Austin said. “We were attacking to score the basketball, not attacking to get fouled.”

It worked — CMU continued to penetrate inside in the second half, and this time, the shots were falling.

Austin, of all people, would know best. A slashing ball of energy that tallies the majority of his points on contested layups, Austin scored 14 points in the second half and frequently outmaneuvered Toledo’s big men to finish at the rim. 

With the help of layups converted through traffic, the Chippewas played the Rockets even in the second half, 44-44. CMU was efficient on offense, but Toledo reclaimed a comfortable lead down the stretch to preserve its share of the MAC West crown.

Head coach Keno Davis has a lot of respect for the Rockets’ style of play and hopes to get another shot at them -- albeit as close to the MAC Tournament championship game as possible.

“When you see a quality team like that, you’d prefer to see them at the end, when you know you’re going to get a great team,” Davis said.

If and when the Chippewas get that chance to face off against Toledo in the MAC Tournament, Austin believes his team is ready to overcome the Rockets and their formidable frontcourt.

“They’re tall and they’re big, but we’re athletic enough to finish around them and finish over them,” Austin said.